It was Thursday, March 15, 1945 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre when Leo McCarey took home his second Best Director Academy Award. McCarey won Best Director the first time for his 1937 romantic comedy, The Awful Truth and now he was being honored for helming Going My Way (1944). Bing Crosby, the star of Going My Way also took home an Oscar that night as did Ingrid Bergman who won Best Actress for George Cukor’s Gaslight. At the time of that ceremony all three players – McCarey, Crosby and Bergman – were working on the sequel to Going My Way titled The Bells of St. Mary’s, which was directed, produced and written (story) by McCarey.
Leo McCarey was excited about the project with Bing Crosby set to reprise the Father O’Malley role that got him Oscar. In the planned sequel O’Malley was to play opposite a nun, instead of the character of Father Fitzgibbon, played memorably by Barry Fitzgerald in Going. McCarey cared a lot about Sister Mary Benedict, a character he based on his real-life aunt, and he wanted the best actress anywhere to play her. The best actress anywhere at that time was Ingrid Bergman.
Don’t get too excited though because even reputable directors didn’t get what they wanted easily. You see Bergman was under contract to David O. Selznick who had to approve a loan out for her to be in McCarey’s picture. McCarey went to see Selznick whose response was just short of, “Let me get this straight. You want to use Ingrid Bergman in a sequel that is sure to fail? You’re out of your mind! Absolutely not!” And that was that. Except that Leo had already sent Ingrid the script and she loved it. Together the two decided to try to convince Selznick.
Leo McCarey wanted Ingrid for The Bells of St. Mary’s more than anything and David O. Selznick took full advantage of it. The deal for Ingrid Bergman cost McCarey double the rental fee Selznick usually got plus a year of free studio space at RKO, which Selznick International usually rented, plus the rights to a few notable properties. As for Ingrid, well this is how she convinced Selznick…
David O. Selznick: What are you going to do while Bing Crosby is singing?
Ingrid: I don’t have to do anything but look at him.
Selznick: Look at him? You’re a great actress and you’re just going to look at him?
Ingrid: (Don’t worry) I shall register radiance, adoration, perhaps perplexity.
The Bells of St. Mary’s was made and David O. Selznick was wrong. The sequel was as successful as its predecessor. The picture garnered eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and the third consecutive nomination for Ingrid Bergman. To paraphrase Cary Grant, they should’ve just given Bergman a nomination every year whether she made a picture or not. Honestly. It’s arguable whether any other major actress was as prolific – there was actually a running joke in Hollywood at the time with people saying, “I actually saw a picture last night which didn’t star Ingrid Bergman.” Nor was there another actress that was as varied a performer as Ingrid at the apex of her career and 1945 went far to getting her to that apex. Three Bergman movies were released that year – Sam Wood’s Saratoga Trunk, which was completed in 1943 but held up, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound and The Bells of St. Mary’s. All three pictures added considerably to Bergman’s stature as an actress and increased her value as a property for Selznick who got upwards of $100,000 per picture for each Bergman loan out. (Life)
I think most people would agree that despite its success, The Bells of St. Mary’s doesn’t quite measure up to Going My Way, but it’s still a wonderful movie. The story begins when Father O’Malley is assigned to St. Mary’s parish. Aside from his duties as spiritual advisor, O’Malley is tasked with recommending whether the school should be closed and the children sent to another school. At St. Mary’s O’Malley consistently butts heads with the Sister Superior, Mary Benedict whose methods are as unconventional as O’Malley’s. The two have the same goals, which are to save the school and help the children, but those goals are sometimes blurred by their disagreements – in delightful fashion, if I may say. In the end their appreciation for each other is evident and both are charming people we care deeply about.
Bing Crosby does as fine a job as Father O’Malley in The Bells as he did in Going My Way. The children in the movie are wonderful to watch with the nativity play rehearsal scene capable of melting your heart. Also good is Joan Carroll who plays Patsy Gallagher, a young girl who’s taken to St. Mary’s temporarily while her mother gets her life back in order. And it’s always fun to see Henry Travers who plays selfish businessman, Horace P. Bogardus, who’s interested in purchasing the St. Mary’s property. For me, however, Ingrid Bergman makes the movie with her touching and comical portrayal of Sister Benedict, a role that allowed her the first opportunity of her career to play comedic scenes. Ingrid is luminescent in every scene from the heartwarming, funny moments during which Sister Benedict is giving a bullied student a boxing lesson to the touching ones like when she learns she has been transferred from her beloved St. Mary’s. She even sings like an angel in the movie albeit with a few cracks here and there to remind us she’s human. Bergman noted in her autobiography, My Story, that she enjoyed making The Bells of St. Mary’s very much. She loved doing the comedy, she loved the script, she loved being directed by Leo McCarey and – most of all – she loved not caring about what she ate because no one would notice under the robes. Of Bring Crosby, Ingrid said that he was pleasant, nice and easy to work with, but that she didn’t get the opportunity to get to know him very well.
As some of you know my dad passed away earlier this year and I love knowing that he had a life-long crush on Ingrid Bergman. I attribute that to the fact that to him she was the true meaning of beauty. He would wistfully say, “que linda era” (how beautiful she was) at every mention. I also attribute it to the absolute tenderness Ingrid exuded, a quality no other actor could replicate. I sometimes imagine my father as a child in a movie theater watching her and I like to think of the joy she brought to his difficult childhood. To him there were many great actors, but only one movie star and that was Ingrid Bergman. She had an ethereal quality, which when added to her astounding talent still makes for a mesmerizing combination. It’s no wonder my dad fell in love with her like the rest of the world did. And it’s no wonder they put her on a pedestal higher than that of any other movie star. And it’s no wonder she was so easy to believe as Sister Benedict. Bergman wrote, “Of course from the minute I played in The Bells of Saint Mary’s everybody knew what I should do forever afterwards. I should be a nun.” That’s because there was kindness and there was truth and in truth we believe. The only people who were angry with her after The Bells were Catholic moms who blamed her for a performance so good that it influenced their impressionable young daughters to enter a convent.
Since she’d arrived in Hollywood in 1939 under the discerning eye of David O. Selznick, Ingrid Bergman had been called things like “unspoiled as a Swedish snowfall” and “naive as a country lass approaching her first smörgåsbord.” Bergman was at once innocent and sophisticated – what makes for honest actors and lasting stars. Audiences and Hollywood power players attached to her a sort of divinity that no one could get enough of. As a fan I do some of that myself. I don’t know where her glow comes from, but it is real because I see it in her in her movies. Ingrid Bergman couldn’t have known that when she told Selznick “I shall register radiance and adoration” the world would take her literally. And they did. And today I do. On what would have been her birthday I ring the bells of St. Ingrid for my dad.
Ingrid Bergman (August 29, 1915 – August 29, 1982)